Why Are They Called Steamer Trunks?



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Maybe you’ve already got a picture in your mind – a battered old box with aged leather banding and bristling with brass tacks, perhaps containing rare treasure maps … or your grandma’s ancient wigs.

Ah, the steamer trunk. Such history! And mystery! But where did they come from and why do they have such a weird name?

The name is easy. They’re called steamer trunks because when they came into fashion in the 1870s they were often brought aboard steam vessels by travelers. That included both trains and boats, and they were favored above other types of trunks because of their durability and flat-topped shape, which made them easy to carry and stack.

From an etymological and design perspective, this is what distinguishes trunks from chests. Trunks are built for travel as a kind of luggage, whereas chests are designed purely for storage and so may not be as durable.

The word “trunk” dates back to the 9th century. Some historians say trunks are the oldest evidence of furniture known and also likely served as tables and chairs when first developed, but that’s debatable. What is not is the fact that trunks existed long before the word. They’ve been around for thousands of years and are believed to have originated in China.

Experts argue over whether steamer trunks have been mislabeled and that more low-profile cabin trunks more aptly fit the description, but the two are similar and likely share the same design origins – which are more or less unknown. The banded style is common among many different types of trunks like the Saratoga and Jenny Lind, which both came before the steamer.

And what of Louis Vuitton, one of the most famous names in trunks and luggage? He got his start as a layetier, a suitcase packer for French bluebloods, and started his empire making trunks in 1854 just before steamer trunks became all the rage. He was an early adopter of the flat-topped design, although it's difficult to credit him with the invention. Nevertheless, these days his vintage steamer trunks can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

We welcome you to share your steamer trunk stories, especially if you’ve ever traveled with one.

This wood steamer trunk from Boston Loft Furnishings features easy-close hinges and antique brass accents. 

Phat Tommy steamer trunks are handcrafted in the USA with cabinet-grade birch and steel, and feature removable storage trays. 

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